All You Need To Know About Making Your Own Records
Some musicians and bands decide to take their future success into their own hands, by putting money into producing their own records. Tony Batchelor and Sue Silutoe take the mystery out of making your own CD, vinyl or cassette release, from initial Session Tape to final product.
If you've decided to take the independent route to getting your music heard by the public, your first step will be to produce your own release — and it can be a daunting prospect. Tony Batchelor, of mastering and duplication facility TAM, covers the various stages involved in vinyl, CD and cassette production.
Everyone, so it has been said, should be entitled to be famous for 15 minutes, but many people want to be famous for 50 minutes or more, on however many cassettes or CDs they can sell. The great majority of all recorded work is not released by record companies, never gets airplay and never sees the inside of a record store! Instead, much of this work is recorded and mass produced to order for bands, cabaret, clubs, holiday camp entertainers, choirs, schools, amateur opera and so on.
This article is primarily concerned with how to turn your raw, unedited recording into a master that can be used as the production source for multiple copies, and then how to get copies made — currently there are five major release formats.
At present, vinyl is the oldest format and is usually of three types:
• THE 12-INCH LP: 25 minutes of material per side with a playing speed of 33 1/3 rpm. A declining format, with few people replacing their record players when updating their music systems.
• THE 12-INCH SINGLE: a standard LP recorded at 45 rpm to give a shorter playing time and to allow maximum peak level irrespective of actual playing time. Up to 12 minutes per side.
• THE 7-INCH SINGLE, played at 45 rpm, was originally intended to have one item per side, of about 3 1/2 minutes each, though this can be exceeded.
Cassette is currently the second oldest format and of only one type. The tape content of each cassette is wound to the exact programme length of the longest side, usually up to 47 minutes, giving 94 minutes in total. The longest side should be the A-side, so that when turning over to the B-side, the tape will be at the beginning. The so-called 'Cassingle' is merely a cassette that has a maximum playing time of 20 minutes. All cassettes should be recorded with Dolby B noise reduction and normal equalisation so that they will play without special switching on any player. This applies irrespective of whether ferric or chrome-type tape stock is used.
Currently the most popular format, CD is capable of many variations, but for sound-only purposes, the CD-Audio (CD-A) is the relevant one. CD players designed to play back conventional audio CDs conform to the Philips/Sony specification, usually referred to as the 'Red Book'. The CD-A is certainly the best format in terms of quality and convenience, though the analogue cassette (Musicassette) has the greater market penetration.
The CD comes in two physical types: the 5-inch (12cm) is the most common, with a theoretical maximum playing time of about 82 minutes — but few pressing plants will guarantee satisfactory playing on all players for this length. The more universally accepted maximum playing time is 74 minutes, and the programme material can be split into up to 99 tracks with 99 indices per track! The 3-inch (7cm) CD is designed for a playing time of 18 minutes, but can be stretched to almost 20 minutes and has the same track and indexing format as the 5-inch CD. Very few factories now make 3-inch CDs.
• SESSION TAPE: the process starts with the Session Tape, which could be a multitrack tape, or it could be a straight stereo (or even mono) recording; this is the untouched sound as it was originally recorded. In the case of a multitrack tape, it will eventually be mixed to a new tape known as the Original Master, which constitutes the earliest version of the final stereo product. At this stage, it may not be practical to get beginnings, ends, pauses and levels dealt with, particularly if more than one product format is envisaged, but that doesn't matter at this point. Ideally, this tape should be in a digital format such as DAT; if this is not practical, use the best possible analogue format, avoiding cassette if you can. When working with DAT:
• Always set the automatic writing of ID's to ON and check that playing an ID from pause does not clip the first note; adjust the ID position if necessary.
• Never record programme on the first or last minute of tape. Record silence before and after all programme; never run the tape in Play to get a gap either during or at either end of the recording.
• Always set the Record Enable tab to Off when you take the tape out of the recorder and label both the tape and the case.
• Always record to digital peak as shown by the recorder meters. Use the overload indicator to avoid distortion, but don't 'play safe' by under-recording either. Most DAT machines under-indicate by 2dB. Any dynamic range lost at this stage can never be regained.
• If you can, use the 44.1kHz sampling rate, without emphasis, which is universal for CD, DCC and MD. If your recorder only works at 48kHz then don't worry, but never mix sampling rates on either one tape or a batch of tapes destined for the same final product.
• Where possible, use the digital In and digital Out on the recorder; that way, subsequent straight digital transfers will have no detrimental effect, assuming that professional equipment with low error rates is used.
• PRODUCTION MASTER: the Production Master contains the final, assembled album with all the tracks in the right order, at the right levels and with the right gaps between them. Any necessary EQ and other audio treatments will also be applied when creating the Production Master. It is important to log everything to produce a complete history of the tape and its contents.
If the Production Master is to be a DAT, all track start points must have correctly numbered ID's and they must match exactly the list of track titles and times provided with the tape. There may be other stages of pre-production, depending on the final release format: for CD manufacture, the tape will have to have timecode and PQ code added; for DCC, the tape will have to have text added to it as well as being data compressed; for MD, the process is similar to CD but with the additional text and data compression aspects of DCC.
You will almost certainly be unable to add these extra codes yourself, so make sure that all the information detailed earlier is attached to and stays with your tape.
Once the production master is complete, (other than PQ coding and the additional processes required for MD or DCC), it is time to hand it over to someone else. However, you still need to involve yourself as the customer, to ensure that any mistakes can't be laid at your door. To give you an idea of what to look for, I'll break down the process of manufacturing into its five main stages for each of the formats. First, a word of caution about printed material, such as labels, insert cards, sleeves, booklets and so on.
• PRINTING AND PRINTERS: there are very few cassette and disc manufacturers who have in-house facilities for printing, other than on the cassettes and discs themselves. As a result, if you don't arrange the printing yourself, there will be at least two other businesses in the production chain. Assuming that you have designed the artwork, or employed a graphic designer to do it for you, the factory will farm out your artwork to a printing firm, who may in turn subcontract out the printing plate (and/or films) making. I have even known printers specialising in printing for the audio industry who sub-contracted the laminating of record sleeves and then sub-contracted the folding and gluing! The problem lies, not only in the delay each stage produces, but also in the risk that each of these subcontracting companies will deny responsibility for mistakes and pass the buck to each other and finally to you! It's therefore wise to allow at least twice as long for the printing as for the manufacture of the cassettes or discs and to check everything twice. Never sign a proof until you have checked it thoroughly and always pay the extra for a colour proof.
• BROKERS: one way to avoid printing problems is to go through a broker. A broker can handle all the stages in manufacturing, which saves you the effort, time and expense of finding and then dealing with the various businesses involved. For example, to get a vinyl record made, you could be involved in disc mastering, plating, label artwork design and making, label printing, pressing and all the processes involved in sleeve printing and making. You will have to check every stage and make sure that the parts are passed from one to the other without unnecessary delay and you'll normally have to make payments to each business before they will release the part they are responsible for.
A broker will take all that work off your shoulders; you place one order and make one payment to get one complete delivery, even for multiple formats. Unfortunately, very few brokers in this industry tell you in their adverts that they are brokers — words such as 'direct', 'factory', 'complete manufacturing' and so on appear with alarming frequency. On the whole, brokers, used properly, can save you a lot of time and expense, but only go for one who has a good knowledge of the industry and who will quote you a firm price and take full responsibility for the work you are paying for. Ensure that the price includes as many printing proofs as are required and that you check them all; also get a 'reference' cassette or disc for your approval before the mass manufacture starts.
The mass production processes are 'once and for all' processes — once the quantity is made, it cannot be altered but must be scrapped if wrong. However, the small quantity cassette process involving realtime cassette duplicating does lend itself to simply having the tapes re-recorded, as long as the programme length does not need extending, so there is little need for a reference cassette in that case. Indeed, such manufacturers would probably prefer to record the whole batch right from the start, as the likelihood of having to re-record them is small enough to make the production of a reference uneconomic.
• VINYL MASTERING: the factory will require a pair of Lacquer Masters, one for each side of the disc. These are literally cut by a disc mastering technician from your Production Master tape. They must not be played and must be kept in the sealed box and delivered to the factory as soon as possible. At the same time as the masters are cut, a playback lacquer can be cut for you to check. It's also possible to have the reference cut first and then, after you have taken it away and played it, the masters can be cut, using the same settings. However, this is more expensive. Additionally, once the factory has made the Factory Masters, you can ask for a Test Pressing to check that the Lacquer Masters were not damaged in the process. Again, expect to pay an extra set-up charge for this facility.
Factory Masters are made by electro-plating nickel onto the Lacquer Masters. Further plating steps are then employed to produce the 'stampers' used in the presses. Some factories will allow you to buy these metal parts, but as the nickel is usually re-processed, this could be quite expensive, and unless you have special storage facilities available, they will deteriorate anyway. Most factories will store the metal parts free of charge for six months in case you need a re-press.
Record labels must be printed on special paper with inks which will withstand the heat and pressure of the presses. The manufacture of labels is best left to the factory to arrange, but ensure that you get a proof to approve, even if only in black and white.
Once the pressings are trimmed, cooled and inspected, they are placed in sleeves (if you have arranged to have them made through the factory or delivered to the factory). For most LP's, there will be a plain inner bag. The pressings, with or without sleeves, are then boxed, though if delivery is not included in the price, be aware that several boxes of pressings weigh a lot more than you think. If you save on delivery of sleeves and bagging charge by putting the discs in the sleeves yourself, allow plenty of time and remember, practise makes perfect!
• COMPACT DISC: the factory will require a fully prepared CD Tape Master, though some factories will undertake to do this work from your Production Master. The CD Tape Master is made by cloning or copying your tape to a U-matic Tape (which is PCM encoded) together with timecode and PQ code (literally, Pause and Cue) which sets the Table of Contents on the finished CD's so that a CD player can find the tracks. This tape may also be referred to as the 1610 master, 1630 master, PQ master and so on, but CD Tape Master is the correct name for it. The technician will also print a track title and times sheet for the factory, with a copy for you.
There are a few mastering facilities which can make a Reference CD from the CD Tape Master — a cost effective way of ensuring that the CD's will be exactly how you want them. Some facilities can record a One-Off CD, but this is not a Reference as it will not be to exact times, cannot have indices, and cannot have an end time for each track which differs from the start time of the next track. You can ask the factory for a test pressing, but that request will usually be turned down for smaller quantities and the extra charge will be very high.
There is now the possibility of having CD's duplicated in real time, in a similar way to cassettes, which can make quantities of less than 100 a viable proposition. For this type of CD production, a CD Tape Master is not required and this saves money, though the unit cost is currently too high for making CDs intended for retail at the usual price.
• FACTORY MASTERS: once at the CD factory, the CD Tape Master has to be played into the CD equivalent of a disc cutting lathe, referred to as a Glass Mastering Machine or Laser Cutter, which uses the special coding on the tape to get the timing and the Table of Contents right. Next, the Glass Master will be processed and then plated with nickel to eventually make the stampers for the presses. As with analogue stampers, you could buy them but there is little point, and the factory will usually have a free storage period in case of a re-press.
The labels are printed directly onto the pressed CD. A special type of ink is used that cures extremely rapidly so that several colours can be printed in sequence, if required, and so that the disc can be immediately handled for inspection and packing. Again, you should get a black and white proof, and if the print is to be other than black, get a colour sample.
If the factory has arranged for the booklet and inlay card printing, they will automatically insert those, with the disc, into the jewel case. If you have arranged the printing yourself, then get the 'paper parts', as they are termed, to the factory so that they can be automatically inserted; if you try to do it by hand, you will wish you had never started!
• ANALOGUE CASSETTE: virtually any common form of Production Master tape may be used for cassette duplication, and if you are having a large quantity of cassettes made, it is worthwhile asking for a reference cassette to approve before mass production starts. Specify that it must be made from the Factory Master and not directly from your Production Master.
There are really only two types of Factory Master. The most common is a special tape needed for high speed duplicating; this is made by copying from your Production Master, in the analogue domain, and several may be needed for very large runs. Recently, solid-state memory stores have been developed which can be loaded in real-time, direct from your Production Master, and then played out at high speed for the duplicating process. For real-time cassette duplicating, it is usually best for a clone of your DAT Production Master to be used as the Factory master, in order to maintain quality.
• CASSETTE LABELS: for larger quantities, say above 500, the labels are printed direct onto the cassette shell by a fast drying ink process, usually referred to as on-body printing. Special printing plates have to be made for each side of the cassette and for each colour to be printed, so the preparation cost is high and needs to be recovered over the larger quantity orders. Colours are affected by the background colour of the cassette shell, so if your finished colour appearance is important, get a cassette printed for final approval before continuing. Try not to include too much detail in the print and get a black and white proof even if you supply ready-to-print artwork.
For smaller quantities, the labels will usually be printed on paper and fixed to the shell either by a solvent or by using self-adhesive labels. Paper labels can also be printed in more than one colour and tend to give better results than on-body printing.
• HIGH SPEED OR REAL TIME? The question of whether to use high-speed or real-time duplicating is more a matter of cost and turnaround time than anything else, although there is an argument that certain types of programme material are better suited to the real-time method. There is also a sort of compromise process using so-called 'in-cassette' copiers, but the problem with this process is that the cassette shell is not designed to be stable at 16 or so times normal play speed and the movement of the tape is not properly controlled. These types of machine tend to suffer from lack of high frequency response and most use a cassette as the master, so some degradation has been introduced before you start.
Normally the finished product will be packed for you in the library box, with or without the labels and card, depending on how you arrange to have the printing done. When originally placing your order, you can specify white or black shells wound with ferric or chrome tape. Shells can also be ordered in other colours, but these will usually have quite a high minimum order limit.
Regarding quantities, be sure that you can justify the quantity you order. It may seem very cheap in the advert when it says "CD's for 85p each", but this is usually for a minimum of 1000 and will not include all the so-called 'extras' — often essentials without which the CD could not be made in the first place, such as the Glass Master! Get a complete price for everything, and only then compare the total price for each quantity that you might be interested in. Also, look at the possibility of having a very small quantity made as a 'loss-leader' to test the market. If you want the product for promotion, publicity, Christmas presents and so on, you only need just the right number and, although the unit price might seem high, the total price you pay will be held to a reasonable figure.
© Tony Batchelor, TAM, 1993.
Once you've decided to embark on your own commercial record release, there are several decisions to be made. Before deciding which manufacturer to use for the making of your final product, the first hurdle is deciding which format you should release on. Should you go for vinyl — and if so, should you use 7-inch or 12-inch? Or should you opt for cassette or CD? Then there are decisions to be made about presentation. Do you want a white label in a plain cardboard sleeve or do you want something more expensive? And who do you want to use for design, reproduction, printing and pressing? Should you negotiate each part separately and hope all the different elements come together at the same time, or should you go for a one-stop deal — and if so, which one?
With dance music, the answer to the format problem is easy — it's 12-inch vinyl every time because no club DJ worth his salt is going to want anything else. But if your music isn't dance orientated, the decision becomes more complex. For individuals and smaller labels, the road from the final mix to the marketplace is a potential minefield, which is why the majority of UK manufacturers, independents and majors have long offered one-stop packages to take the pain out of the process. Complete novices are probably best served by taking advantage of manufacturers' one-stop deals or going to a specialist broker who can sort out all these queries.
Brokers deal with manufacturers and play one off against the other so their prices stay low, especially on small runs. No matter what format you decide to use, manufacturers won't be interested in any order until it's 500 units, and even 1000 units will still be small in their terms. Karen Emanuel, managing director of broker Key Productions in North London, says: "New bands, if they are not sure what to expect, can easily get caught out because printers and manufacturers do occasionally pull the wool over their eyes. Because we have plenty of experience — and hold large accounts — we tend to get better treatment than an individual might be offered."
Carol Hatchett, of A To Z Music Services, also refers to the brokers' buying power as a good reason for novice bands to use them. She adds: "We try to give people advice because unless you have had a lot of experience in this side of the business, it is easy to come unstuck and spend money where it isn't necessary. And we don't just deal with manufacturers — we also handle printing as well, so all the customer has to do is walk in off the street with a master and a sleeve design — even something on the back of a cigarette packet — and the company will handle everything else."
Manufacturers also claim that they can handle everything, including print, as part of their one-stop deals; it's worth shopping around, because when the plants are quiet — traditionally after the Christmas rush — there are good deals to be done on manufacturers' one-stops.
John Denton, commercial director of CD manufacturer Nimbus, says: "Many clients like to have their hands held, especially if they don't have too much experience of manufacturing." And Mel Gale, general manager of vinyl/cassette manufacturer Audio Services, says: "We provide a one-stop service and we charge a fee, but our buying power means we can negotiate discounts and we take our fees out of that."
That buying power can be considerable. Chris Marksberry, general manager of Mayking's cassette plant, says the company handles over 12 million cassettes every year, which means they have much more clout when it comes to negotiating prices on everything from cases to inlays. "We have dedicated production planners to look after each job, so all the customer needs to do is send over the DAT master and the flat artwork and we will look after everything else."
No matter who you use for manufacturing and printing, it pays to be prepared before you embark on your voyage through the maze. And the first thing to do is get your tape mastered, and cut by an expert. Avi Landenburg, managing director of Chop 'Em Out, says that his company is equipped to handle all sorts of mastering and editing requirements, from putting together CD compilations to removing clicks and pops from a live recording.
Although most of the manufacturers have basic mastering facilities on site and the cost of using them can be included in a one stop deal, Landenburg sounds a note of caution about using them. He says: "There may be a temptation to cut corners but the result — especially on complex jobs — is that the overall sound quality will suffer."
And when it comes to cutting, there is no substitute for an expert. There is such a thing as a bad cut, which even the best pressing can't rectify, so see if you can attend the cut yourself. It is a fascinating process to watch, but remember that cutting engineers don't take kindly to interference unless it's absolutely necessary.
Whether or not you need to visit a cutting room depends on your choice of format, and this in turn depends on your target audience. Everyone knows that dance is 12-inch vinyl led, but pop chart aiming acts should consider all three formats, with the emphasis on CD. Acoustic singer/songwriters and rock bands — with the exception of particularly heavy grunge and punk bands, which still have a vinyl market — are better off pressing CDs. The sound quality is better and radio stations are not interested in anything other than this format. Cassettes are also an option because they are reasonably cheap to produce. Karen Emanuel, of Key Productions, says: "Bands trying to sell their music at gigs do better with cassettes and 7-inch vinyl, but record shops are really only interested in CD and 12-inch vinyl."
Vinyl albums are becoming increasingly rare. BPI figures for the UK show that since 1988, the number of albums shipped on vinyl has dropped from 31% of the total market to just 4% in the second quarter of 1993. In contrast, the number of albums shipped out on CD has risen from 18% to 61% in the same period. The 7-inch vinyl singles market has also dropped, but not so significantly, while the boom in dance music has kept the 12-inch alive and kicking. However, before discounting vinyl, it is worth remembering that some types of music won't sell on anything else — reggae is a prime example.
Apart from price, the most important criterion is turnaround time. Dance music has a very short shelf life, so the pressure is on labels to get new mixes out of the studio and onto vinyl while they are still hot and happening. Manufacturers know they must act quickly, but a lot of product fighting to get through can result in smaller labels or individual customers — those, in other words, who don't promise repeat business — getting pushed to the back of the queue. This is where the specialist broker and the manufacturer's one-stop deal can help, by lending clout to your order and ensuring that printed material is ready on time. Mayking's Chris Marksberry says: "If we are using our own printers, we can control delivery dates and take care of any quality problems, as well as getting better prices."
Most brokers quote three full weeks for a release — one week to get all the origination and test pressing done (which the customer approves), then another week for sleeve and label printing, and a third week for manufacturing and delivery. Manufacturers quote faster turnaround times — as little as five days for a cassette or vinyl release — but that is really only applicable for the big labels with lots of units, and it doesn't take into account the time spent with the graphic designers and printers, so be prepared for a longer wait.
Whatever you choose to release — and whatever format you choose to release it on — the main point to remember about manufacturing is that it is only as terrifying as you allow it to be. There are plenty of experts in the market willing to help the novice — and there are plenty of deals to be done because times are tough and everyone has had to get competitive on price and turnaround times.
On The Record
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